Where There's a Why, There's a Way

Where There's a Why, There's a WayAt least once a week, I hear my son, a junior in high school, say, “What is the point of school? I am never going to use [insert subject] again.” He may or may not, depending on his chosen profession. My counter-argument tends to be, “You may not use all of it. Some  of it you will. Regardless, good grades get you into college, and knowing how to work gets you into a happy life.” On days when I’m desperate, or just exasperated, I huff (and I puff): “Do it because I said to.” At which point I lament aloud, “Why doesn’t he have a vision for what his future might hold?”

In her provocative piece, The Last Thing You Need Is Vision, Jesse Lyn Stoner explores the question of whether vision is overrated. Her conclusion: in the case of a foundering business, you may need to start with clearing the decks and patching the leaks, but ultimately, you can’t expect to get anywhere without a vision. Her piece started me thinking about the discovery-driven approach I emphasize in my work on dreaming and disrupting, versus embracing a vision at the outset.

Disruption is, by its very nature, discovery-driven. You can’t see the end from the beginning when you play where no one else is playing — so you simply start. You move out of your comfort zone, away from the known, and at every step you have to stop, reevaluate, and recalibrate your course. “Vision” implies you have a view of exactly where you want to go and you chart a course accordingly, like plotting a journey on a map, a straightforward road with no distractions, roadblocks or alternate routes.

So what place does vision have in the midst of disruption? When you are young, or when your why is non-existent or has gone missing, which happens to most of us at some juncture in our business or career, it may be that you just need to move forward. Or as David Brooks has written, “most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling.”

Despite these realities, I’ve come to believe that vision is imperative to staying the course when disrupting. A would-be disruptor who hasn’t defined their “why” will easily be enticed back into the safety of the known. Compare Abraham Lincoln to Ulysses S. Grant, says negotiating expert Jim Camp. Lincoln had a vision of saving the Union at any cost. As a general of the Union troops, Grant hewed without hesitation to Lincoln’s vision. “But as a president, Grant was a failure, taking bad advice, making bad decisions, mainly because he didn’t know why he was president and what he hoped to accomplish.” If you don’t have a powerful answer as to why you are disrupting, you can easily get distracted and lose your way. Paraphrasing Proverbs, Where there is no vision, we really do perish.

Trish Costello, founder of Portfolia, knows her “why”:  assist starts-up in growth and financing. Her “how” has morphed over the past two decades. Costello founded and led for twelve years the prestigious Kauffman Fellows program, one of the world’s most respected private training programs for venture capitalists. Then, in 2013, she launched Portfolia, a platform that allows start-ups to raise money from the crowd, whether family, friends, or professional investors. Different methods, same purpose.

Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff also displays a clear why: make it easier to serve the customer. CRM started as a simple-to-use, cloud-based (read:  low cost) sales data warehouse. His “why” intact, but with a change in “how,” Benioff launched Chatter in 2010, a platform that supported collaboration within the enterprise – to better serve customers. Then in 2013, he made a big gamble on a how. He allocated 50% of his software development time to make Chatter the primary interface (analogous to the Twitter and Facebook activity streams) in Salesforce.

I’ve been grappling with this personally, as I have pursued two important goals for 2014: to run a marathon and to organize a conference on pursuing dreams. Both goals spring from my “why”: I want to make it possible for individuals everywhere, including myself, to dream big and actually start taking steps toward realizing their dreams – especially the dreams that seem unattainable. Before last year’s Boston Marathon bombing, I didn’t consider myself an athlete or a runner. I haven’t yet secured a bib. And, if I do, I will need to raise $7,500 for charity in order to get a spot.

And yet in some ways, this is a fairly comfortable “disruption” for me — I know how to raise money and just last weekend I ran 14.5 miles as part of my training. However, the investment of time needed to keep pursuing  this dream might just thwart my conference-organizing goal. The “how” of launching a conference is far more challenging and outside of my established skill-set. The details are daunting, but with my vision of daring others to dream firmly before me, I am pressing forward, discovering my way one step at a time.

Once you know your greater purpose, there are lots of roads that will take you there. As Amar Bhide writes, 70% of all successful new businesses end up with a strategy different than the one they initially pursued. There are a gazillion methods and tactics, but there are very few whys. When we have a vision and believe in it, instead of seeing drudgery, we see discovery. Instead of aimless wandering, we see ourselves at the low-end of our personal growth curve. Once we know our why, there will be a how.

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Whitney Johnson is the co-founder of Clay Christensen’s Rose Park Advisors, blogs for Harvard Business Review and LinkedIn, and is the author of Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things When You Dare to Dream. She is available for speaking and consulting.

Whitney Johnson




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  1. Leckey Harrison on January 5, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    Thank you for this post, and good luck on your goals. I am juggling a training program development, school, and business development all at once. We can get this done!

    I, and we as a nonprofit are discovering our “why.” Maybe I should say it’s mostly in place. The how, or the way, seems to be a fluid process, discovered as one foot moves in front of the other.

    I have found Simon Sinek a great help in discovering the Why.

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